God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change
The courage to change the things I can
And the wisdom to know the difference.
I have these words above my desk, mainly so that I am reminded on a regular basis. Captured in these few words is the essence of the spiritual journey and spiritual challenges for most of us.
Accept the things I cannot change. These few words bring into focus three spiritual challenges: powerlessness, fear, and the need to be in control.
I had an exercise in powerlessness over the weekend. I was flying from Oakland to El Paso through Las Vegas. Flight delays raised the possibility that I would be stranded in Las Vegas for the night. I felt powerless. I certainly tried to repeat over and over the 12 Step mantra “Let go and let God” but did not find any peaceful serenity. I kept worrying “What if…what if…” Granted this is not the worst experience of powerlessness I have ever faced. Addiction. Cancer in a loved one. Financial crisis These were certainly more serious and involved their own struggles with powerlessness.
The emotion that accompanies the sense of powerlessness is fear, usually in the form of “What ifs”. Second only to love, fear is the emotion most often addressed by Jesus who often told those around Him “Don’t be afraid. Trust in me.” It is fear that fuels our catastrophic thinking when we feel powerless.
Fear typically gives rise to a desire to control, often accompanied by anger. I could see that at the airport — stressed people angry that the situation couldn’t get fixed. I remember years ago counseling a young woman who, after some hard work, was discharged from the hospital, a huge transition for her. One day after her discharge she burst into my office yelling “Do something!” She was coping with a lot of fear and wanted it fixed. NOW!
Sitting in the Oakland airport, I knew I had no control. I knew that I was called to accept the situation as beyond my control. Did I find serenity? No but at least I knew what I had to do — keep repeating “Let go and let God.
Change the things that I can. I remember sitting in a support group meeting when a man announced that he was upset with his boss so he quit his job and was turning it over to God. I had the thought “Wow. I don’t think God runs an employment agency.” I also recalled the words of a good friend: “You can pray all day for potatoes but you still have to go out and hoe the garden.” The challenge to change the things I can applies to at least two situations: 1. changing myself and 2. speaking out in protest.
It is often said that the only thing I can really change in life is myself –my thoughts, my reactions, my expectations. This is the notion that is at the heart of psychotherapy or spiritual direction. There we can explore our fears, our irrational thoughts. We can decide how we want to face something such as illness over which we have no control. This was a key taught to me by several patients dying of cancer or AIDS-related illness. The disease would be fatal but they could explore how they wanted to face it. Some chose to be bitter. Others chose to find as much peace as they could or to otherwise enrich their lives in whatever ways possible. One man chose to reconcile with his daughter. Another shared the joy he felt in raising songbirds. Another woman focused on the time she had with her infant son.
But the spiritual path is not simply passive acceptance. Jesus protested and got killed as a result. If I am in a situation where I can speak out or take action, the Serenity Prayer would call me to take action. Perhaps I need to confront a loved one. Perhaps I need to say “no” when asked to take a course of action I know is wrong. If I am in a position to do so, perhaps I need to take a public stance that I know will be rejected by some, hoping only that this stance will result in some good.
Wisdom to know the difference. How can I tell when to act or when to act? There is no easy step-by-step guide. I wish there was. Wisdom may be found through a process of discernment, a going in quietly perhaps in prayer seeking for some guidance. It is important to understand that none of us get it right all the time. You may experience accepting something only to realize latter that action of your part would have made a difference. You may take some form of action only to see that the action was futile and it would have been better to accept. Being aware of what the Serenity Prayer calls us to doesn’t mean we will be on the mark every time. It is important not to judge oneself when we miss the mark.
I believe that we all tend to err in one direction or another when trying to live the Serenity Prayer. I undoubtedly err in the direction of trying to change that which I cannot. Others may err by being too passive. Still others may act impulsively without taking the time to discern.
This simple prayer then is rich with spiritual guidance and challenges all of which I need to attend to on a daily basis. Amen to that!
And, yes, I did make the connecting flight to El Paso!
Reflection: What have been your experiences with the themes of serenity, courage, and wisdom as seen in the Serenity Prayer?